We select our Queens based on their genetic traits. We take this process seriously, because we want to ensure that our customers receive the best quality bees. We use the process of elimination to determine which Queens we will graft. We keep records about each hive's performance specifically designed for each trait to be evaluated. As much as possible, our evaluations are conducted under controlled conditions: each apiary is subject to the same management techniques and similar environmental conditions.
We use natural selection to determine which Queens have the genetics to withstand a northern winter.
We are non-migratory beekeepers. We do not use artificial heat. We use only natural windbreaks. We leave our hives with ample honey stores. In Minnesota, winter typically begins in November and lasts until early April. Our winters are characterized by cold (below freezing) temperatures, commonly dipping down to -40 °F for extended periods of time. Snow is the main form of winter precipitation, with an average total snowfall of 45 inches. Those hives that survive the winter are chosen to go to the next round of selection to become a breeder Queen.
High Honey Yield
We first select the colonies that were naturally prepared for winter. From those hives, we choose the ones with the largest honey yield to go into the next round of selection.
Working only with hives that have successfully over-wintered, we examine our records from the previous summer about their honey production. We select the hives that both produced the most honey and required the least amount of sugar water feed to go into winter.
We only take surplus honey from hives-- we leave three deep hive boxes for the bees full of honey and brood. We record how much honey we take from each hive. After pulling honey, we weigh each hive. We want our hives to weigh 175 lbs at the beginning of winter.
Some hives place honey in the lower three deep boxes, and some hives do not. We want hives that know to prepare for winter by storing honey in the bottom three boxes by Labor Day. We record how much, if any, sugar water feed each hive needs to reach optimal winter weight. Those that possess these favorable characteristics are chosen to go to the next round of selection.
Low Mite Loads
We believe that our bees' mite loads are only as good as our neighbor's bees' and vice-versa.
Meaning that if our neighbor's bees have Varroa Mites, our bees have Varroa Mites. This is unavoidable. However, we do not think blanket treatment is the best practice. We follow an integrated pest management system.
First, we implement cultural controls to maximize colony health and strength, which will minimize the risk of spreading disease and pests. Strong, healthy colonies are able to control their mite populations and reduce our need to use treatments. We use these management techniques in order to reduce hive stress and promote healthy colonies:
- Selecting Queens that demonstrate hygienic behaviors and disease resistance
- Choosing strategic apiary locations
- Culling old combs
- Removing dead-outs
- Requeening hives throughout the summer as needed
- Placing hives in ways to reduce drifting
Next, we implement physical controls to remove mites. Mites are attracted to living in drone comb, due to the longer period of time drones are in their pupa stage. We place special frames that encourage drone laying in each production hive. This allows us to naturally trap and remove mites without the use of chemical treatment. This is done as needed throughout the Spring, Summer, and Fall.
We monitor our hives for mites throughout the season and keep detailed records. We implement powdered sugar mite checks and/or alcohol wash mite checks in the spring and fall (click her to learn about the powdered sugar test). If the cultural and physical controls did not keep the mite loads down below our pre-determined threshold, only then will we use chemical controls. The amount of treatment used will depend on the mite loads of each apiary.
Our preferred treatment method is oxalic acid. This is a natural acid that can be used during a brood break. If a hive in the spring or summer has unmanageable mite loads, we will requeen the colony and use a small dosage of oxalic acid when there is no brood (click hear to learn about oxalic acid treatment). We use our records to select Queens with low mite loads. Those that do not display this trait are not incorporated into the future gene pool.
We record information about the hives' temperament throughout the summer. Any hive that shows signs of being overly aggressive or has a non-necessary frantic demeanor will not be considered to become a breeder Queen.
We hygienic-test the colonies that have over-wintered, have high honey yield, have low mite loads, and have a good temperament. Bees that carry the hygienic trait will detect and remove diseased brood before infection can spread to the entire colony. We simulate a situation for bees to remove dead brood from the hive, and we record the amount cleaned up after 24 hours. This reveals how quickly the colony can remove disease from the hive, thus becoming less susceptible to chalk brood and foul brood. We do this by using a frame of brood from the selected hive, a 3" pvc pipe, and liquid nitrogen (click here for more information). We do this test twice to ensure accuracy.
Breeder Queen Selection
We use the process outlined above to determine our breeder Queen stock. We graft Queens throughout the summer in order to create high-quality Starter Colonies throughout the spring, summer and fall.